23 April 2020

Domestic violence and conflict spikes, but can we hope for a kinder world after COVID-19?

| Sharon Kelley
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Sonia Di Mezza, Julie Dobinson and Claudia Maclean

Sonia Di Mezza, Julie Dobinson and Claudia Maclean. Photos: Supplied.

There has been an increase in demand for support and legal services during the COVID-19 lockdown according to the Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) and the Women’s Legal Centre in Canberra, while family lawyer specialists DDCS says the crisis has also been a crystalising time for family decision making.

All three organisations on the front line say they fear that the consequences of the shutdown could take a long time to play out for Canberra families who have been damaged by the shutdown economically and emotionally.

DVCS Chief Executive Officer Sonia Di Mezza says her service is seeing a spike in the number of people facing domestic and family violence as a result of the increased lockdown tensions. They are also concerned about the long-term implications for existing family tensions as people are restricted inside their houses.

The Women’s Legal Centre says the crisis has produced a spike in demand for employment law support, as many people have lost their jobs and are asking about their rights under the current circumstances.

While DVCS and the Women’s Legal Centre have both moved their operations online, they are expecting to deal with the increase in demand for some time.

“Unfortunately, I do think that things might escalate before they get better,” said DVCS Chief Executive Officer Sonia Di Mezza. “And we might see an intensity in some of the violence that occurs. That, unfortunately, is related to people becoming more and more stressed as we go further into COVID-19.”

Claudia Maclean expects demand for the Women’s Legal Centre’s services to continue to increase, along with debt levels in the wake of much higher rates of unemployment.

“I think we’re going to see quite long-term ramifications and greater debt levels,” she said.

“I think it will actually change the demographic of the clients we see. We really try to plug the gap between those who can’t afford a private lawyer and those who don’t qualify for Legal Aid, and I think that that’s going to be a much bigger cohort of women,” she said.

Canberra’s DDCS Lawyers Managing Director Julie Dobinson hopes that some good things will come from the COVID-19 lockdown. She believes the crisis has exposed the existing deficiencies in the court system.

“There’s an inquiry at the moment into family law and one of the things coming out of this situation is that people really need easy access to a specialised court. I don’t know how it’s all going to pan out but it’s definitely going to generate some very interesting outcomes and opportunities,” she said.

“I think that I’m a bit of an optimist, and I would like to think that after experiencing this global pandemic people will actually be kinder to each other, and I hope that translates to the way people deal with each other in relationships and the way we do business.”

Claudia Maclean agrees that part of the COVID-19 legacy could include greater efficiencies in how our courts operate.

“I think I’d like to see a legacy from this, courts can do more things administratively or by phone,” said Ms Maclean. “I think that the courts have been very quick to adapt to what could possibly be an impossible situation.

“I hope the legacy is also a changed view of the welfare recipient. We’re going to have more people on welfare, and I’d like to see people be kinder and more empathetic to people who are struggling.”

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